Op-Ed: 'At-Large' Elections vs. By District

Measure B would change the way San Mateo County elects its county supervisors by changing its elections from at-large to by district. One reader urges everyone to vote no.


Submitted to Patch by David Cary.

Have an opinion you'd like published on Redwood City-Woodside Patch? E-mail it to Editor Jennifer van der Kleut at jennifer.vanderkleut@patch.com.


You have a right to choose your county supervisor - someone who will represent you, someone who will vigorously advocate for your interests and opinions.

Your neighbors should not be allowed to override your choice, giving you a fake representative who disagrees with you. Elections should be about you choosing the person that will represent you, not about deciding whether or not you get representation. A better, representative democracy requires representation for all.

Measure B is not the change we need. Changing from at-large elections to district elections for county supervisors is a distraction that only moves us from one bad option to another.

Both district elections and the current at-large elections fail to guarantee voters the representation and voting rights we deserve. Both systems are exclusionary by design. Both can leave about half of us without our chosen representative. Both systems insulate incumbents from competition. Both systems undermine majority rule.

The California state legislature and Congress use district elections and they have very low approval ratings with voters. Why the dysfunction? Much of the problem can be traced to the the fundamental failure of single-winner, winner-take-all elections in giving voters real representation.

San Mateo County should not follow that path.

You would not be satisfied going to a restaurant that got your order wrong half the time, and did not correct the problem, but still made you pay. Do not be satisfied with elections that perform that poorly either.

District elections allow incumbents and the courts to gerrymander voting districts, manipulating which voters get representation. That robs voters of their rightful decision making power. Voters should choose their county supervisors, not the other way around. Your ability to choose should not be compromised by artificial geographic boundaries or by institutionalized racial and ethnic stereotypes.

A much fairer way to elect county supervisors would ensure that any group of like- minded voters comprising one-fifth of the voters would elect one of the five county supervisors. Multi-winner, ranked-choice voting - also known as choice voting - is a good way to do that. Such proportional representation ensures voting rights much better than district elections can. California voters prefer proportional representation. It works in other communities, such as Cambridge, Massachusetts. It can work in San Mateo County.

San Mateo County has been sued for conducting illegal elections, for violating the California Voting Rights Act. Those are serious allegations. We should not be sweeping those problems under the rug. Our self-governance would benefit from a complete and fair examination of those issues. Measure B will not allow that to happen. We should then look for 21st-century solutions that ensure universal voting rights.

District elections are limited, stopgap interventions from the 1960s that we should avoid.

If county supervisors had acted when the 2009 civil grand jury alerted the county to voting rights problems, we could have had proportional representation for 2012. Instead, we are likely to get district elections in the short-term, regardless of whether Measure B passes or fails. Voter-approved district elections will only delay the change we deserve.

To learn more about the failures of district elections, about Measure B, and about representation for all, visit www.rep4all.org.

Vote NO on Measure B.

- David Cary


A short bio about David Cary, written by him:

David Cary has been a resident of San Mateo County for nearly 20 years, and is a board member and secretary of Californians for Electoral Reform, a nonpartisan, statewide organization that works to improve how voters are represented in government at all levels.


Stay up-to-date on the latest local elections news - follow Patch!

Want to share your opinions with the communities of Redwood City and Woodside? Start your own blog here.

mpcyclist October 28, 2012 at 10:14 PM
David Cary really, really misses the point. He speaks of a "county" supervisor. Well, I've got news for him. There are 5 county Supervisors, one from each of five district so, if you want and expect representation of YOUR district (YOUR voice on the board of supervisors), then that argues for a "YES" vote on Measure B. He further states that "your neighbors should not be allowed to override your choice" and yet, that is exactly what "at-large" elections do. They allow other districts within your county to override your choice for YOUR representative within that county by a margin of 4 to 1. That means that if everybody in your district wants to get rid of their supervisor for non-performance or any other [good] reason, the other districts can override that and you are stuck with the loser until he/she terms out of office. Another good reason for a "YES" vote on Measure B. The author even states that "a much fairer way to elect county supervisors would ensure that any group of like- minded voters comprising one-fifth of the voters would elect one of the five county supervisors," which is exactly what a "YES" vote on Measure B would ensure. So, what's his problem? Although the author is against Measure B, he does not make one good argument in favor of his position because the rest of what he writes is equally muddled and confused. I believe the voters are smart enough to figure it out for themselves. Vote "YES" on Measure B.
Barb Valley October 28, 2012 at 10:40 PM
The term "op-ed" refers to "opposite the editorial page" and not, as generally believed, "editorial opinion". Op-eds are articles written by folks not affiliated with the editorial board.
Buck Shaw October 29, 2012 at 05:37 AM
San So let me get this straight. As it is now (a no vote) the city and surrounding area of say San Bruno for example can out vote the people of Redwood City and surrounding area. There by choosing Redwood Citys Supervisor for them. This sounds screwed up to me. Thats like San Francisco voters electing LA mayor and vice versa. Furthermore San Mateo County is the ONLY county in the whole State that does it this way. Vote "YES" on measure B.
Gary Miguel October 30, 2012 at 04:43 PM
mpcyclist: The author is arguing for proportional representation, independent of any geographical organization. To give you an example, say 21% of San Mateo county residents support Zombie Reagan, but they are spread out throughout the county, so Zombie Reagan doesn't have a majority in any single district. The author is proposing a system under which Zombie Reagan would win a seat in this scenario.
David Cary October 31, 2012 at 01:27 AM
Just to clarify what I said in the op-ed, I'm not recommending use of the current system of at-large elections. But I don't think district elections are a good idea either. For me, a No vote on Measure B means I want something better than a choice between two bad options. Especially since even if Measure B fails, we'll probably get rid of the current at-large elections. With district elections it is very easy that 21% of the voters who are like-minded will not be able to elect any supervisors who represent their point of view if that group of voters is evenly spread out among all five districts. On the other hand, another group of 21% of the voters who are like minded could be guaranteed of electing two supervisors who represent their point of view if that group is evenly divided between two districts.


More »
Got a question? Something on your mind? Talk to your community, directly.
Note Article
Just a short thought to get the word out quickly about anything in your neighborhood.
Share something with your neighbors.What's on your mind?What's on your mind?Make an announcement, speak your mind, or sell somethingPost something
See more »